The Homecoming (Part One)

He sat at the empty round table sipping watery black tea, wondering what had happened to those 75 years.  Of his life?  Yes, his life.  Sometimes he somehow felt the elapsed 75 years belonged to someone else, that he’d simply sat on the sidelines watching someone other than himself live that time.  It had all gone so quickly.  And each day always went by faster than the last.  There was no hitting the brakes.  Time flew.  Faster and faster.

Looking around the room, he could see that little had changed.  There were still fake pine boughs and pine cones strung around the high walls.  They were remarkably preserved, however.  Maybe a bit faded, but someone had to be getting up there on a ladder to dust them.  No cobwebs to be seen.  And in each corner, on columns that brought their heads right up to the ceiling, were angels, the quiet, closed-winged ones who’d been watching over customers here since who knew when.

What a great place.  This was the same restaurant where they’d celebrated their 25th class reunion.  So that would have been what, when they had all been 43, right?  Still, a long time ago.  He did the math in his head.  He smiled, he could still do math in his head.  There was another thing to be thankful for.

This was Pine Gardens Chinese Restaurant, a quite small nearly hole in the wall place where they’d all gone to eat since they’d been back in high school.  It was great for a late night bowl of saimin after a football game or a school dance.

Next it had been where they’d go after a night of studying in the library, a place to talk about their college courses, girls, and the future.

And then he’d gone off to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, where you could definitely not find as good a Chinese restaurant.  Or if you heard from a friend that a good one had opened, it was never what you hoped for, but it always had a long line to get in due to word of mouth from those who’d not grown up with a better place to eat Chinese food for comparison purposes.

After earning his PhD, he’d taken a job teaching literature at a small liberal arts college near Green Bay, and since then he’d lived there so long that he really was more a Midwesterner than he was a Hawaiian Islander.  After his parents had died, he’d really had no other family in Hawai‘i, so there’d been no real reason to come back.  And he hadn’t.

That 25th class reunion had been the last time he’d flown “home.”  He’d never had the time to make it back for the others, the 30th, 35th, and so on.  Now, sitting here at the table, he regretted that.  Now, sipping tea in this nostalgic setting, he wished he’d come back for every single one of them.

There should have been one two years earlier for their 55th, but they’d agreed it would be more significant for them to celebrate turning 75 years of age.  And because, definitely, it was getting harder for everyone living off-island to travel, so a birthday celebration rather than a graduation one had been agreed upon.  If they were younger, much younger, they’d have done both.  But those flights get longer and longer, the older you are, and they certainly were not young anymore, though as his friend Mel always liked to say, “Remember, no matter how we are, we’re all still only approaching middle age.  Think positive, folks.”

Who could believe it?  For those remaining to have lived for three quarters of a century.

He sipped his tea.

The good news was, however, that even though he’d not attended any reunions since the 25th, he’d still participated in the Zoom get-togethers.  The pandemic had brought this on, and the habit had stuck.  This happened every two months or so.  There was no question that those who’d Zoomed would recognize each other.  There were tech-averse class members, of course, so those might be a challenge for some of the off-islanders to recognize.

There’d only been 54 class members.  Theirs was a small Christian academy.  Not overly religious, but enough so that he still remembered a good number of Bible verses, along with various songs and creeds.

He thought now at age 75 that he was not a very religious person.  Heck, he’d certainly not thought of himself as religious at all when he was attending the school.  Did he believe it God?  Then, no.  Now, sometimes he thought maybe he did.

Immediately after graduation, they’d lost track of a dozen members of the class.  It was as if those twelve had been dying to fly the coop, and once they had that chance, they never wanted to be seen or heard from again.  And they weren’t.  And this despite great effort by some to track those people down.

As time went on, a classmate had passed away from time to time.  More recently, of course, that number had grown a little more quickly.  Now, here at the 75th birthday mark, there were an even 25 classmates still living, and it had been terrific news to know that all 25, including all 13 who lived off-island, would be able to make it to this 75th birthday celebration.

It was a three-day affair.  Today, there’d been the circle island tour followed by this dinner.

Tomorrow night they’d take a moonlight dinner cruise along the south shore, beginning at Kewalo Basin, going all the way out to Hawai‘i Kai, and back again.  Then Sunday there’d be a luncheon barbeque out on Magic Island.

He sipped more tea and checked the time on his phone.  5:30.  The start time was 6:00.  They should be coming soon.  The party bus would be dropping them off right here at the restaurant.

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